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QPR 2 Liverpool 3

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ACCORDING to the Queens Park Rangers support, Raheem Sterling sleeps when he wants. Not here. Not when he had the presence of mind to revive a Liverpool team that had largely slumbered in west London and not at the very end, when his speed, technique and incision made the difference in a crazy late shoot-out.

When Roy Hodgson, the England manager, who was watching from the stands, got up and left in the 83rd minute, he had seen Sterling stand out for a below-par Liverpool and help them into the lead. Fouled by a QPR substitute, Armand Traoré, he took the free-kick quickly, ushering Glen Johnson into a dangerous position and when the right-back crossed there was Richard Dunne, hanging out an ill-advised leg, to put through his own goal.

Hodgson had revealed that Sterling was too jaded to start for England against Estonia last Sunday, a revelation that triggered the storm we have seen over the last week and strained the relationship between the national team setup and Liverpool.

It was Hodgson’s stamina that could be questioned here. He missed four goals and the latest instalment of the sort of drama that the Premier League somehow serves up on a regular basis. Above all, though, he missed Sterling’s stealing of the show. QPR, who put in what Harry Redknapp said was the best performance of his tenure, twice thought that they had snatched what would have been a deserved reward with goals from another substitute, Eduardo Vargas.

But after each one Sterling switched on the afterburners to put Liverpool back in front. First, he initiated the break that led to Steven Gerrard finding Philippe Coutinho, who cut inside to finish with an excellent low shot and, at the death, he took a pass from Coutinho and played the ball towards Mario Balotelli. Incredibly, Steven Caulker diverted the ball into the net for the second own goal of the afternoon.

QPR were left to lament how Liverpool had broken from Leroy Fer’s botched free-kick at the other end.

It was brutally hard on the home team, who had dominated the first-half and created further chances in the second, including one for Traoré on 85 minutes, when he could not muster enough power in a close-range header. Martin Skrtel also cleared from in front of Vargas moments before Coutinho’s goal.

Vargas was a major positive for Redknapp and QPR, who showed that they are still fighting for their under-pressure manager. The striker, who is on loan from Napoli, scored the first equaliser when he crossed from the right and continued his run to meet Charlie Austin’s header at the far post with a volleyed finish, and his second followed a corner from Fer. Vargas’ glancing header wriggled in at the near post where Joe Allen, a Liverpool substitute, ought to have done better.

But Sterling refused to accept any dropped points and his last-gasp run ensured that Liverpool did not have to. After their toils so far this season, particularly away from Anfield, Brendan Rodgers and the players needed this. Next up for them is Real Madrid in the Champions League at Anfield on Wednesday.

Liverpool had been dismal in the first half, from back to front, and they were fortunate to have remained in contention. QPR had three glorious chances and when they missed them, it always seemed likely that they would come back to haunt them.

Austin was denied one by Simon Mignolet after Johnson and Skrtel had missed tackles on him; Fer skimmed the top of the crossbar from point-blank range from Bobby Zamora’s cut-back and the midfielder also headed against the bar, with Mignolet having come for another Zamora cross and missing it. In the ensuing melee, Johnson jumped into a high tackle which might have led to the concession of a penalty before Liverpool scrambled the ball clear.

Liverpool were overrun in midfield during the opening period, when they were beaten to several second balls, while the less said about Balotelli, the better. The centre-forward was a distant second-best in the physical battle with Dunne while his shooting was off-kilter. The worst from him, however, was still to come. On the hour, after Sterling’s incision and Adam Lallana’s shot, which was pushed out by Alex McCarthy, Balotelli sized up the empty net, eight yards from goal. He blazed his shot high. What. A. Miss.

Rodgers insisted afterwards that Balotelli’s first Premier League goal would come. Apart from Gerrard’s 44th minute effort, when he jinked and curled narrowly past the far post, Liverpool had nothing to show for themselves in the first-half but they were better in the second. Rodgers moved Gerrard from the No10’s role to a deeper-lying midfield position and Sterling ran hard and directly. In a stuttering team, the winger’s relentlessness is hugely impressive.

QPR lost Nedum Onuoha and Sandro to injuries – the latter had forced Mignolet into a reflex save early in the second-half – but Sterling came to transcend the afternoon. The former QPR youth player angered the home crowd with his reaction to Liverpool’s first goal but he brought them to their knees in stoppage time.

Man of the match Raheem Sterling (Liverpool) – The Guardian

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